When archaeologists unearthed the world’s oldest winery, estimated to be 6,100 years old, in southern Armenia three years ago, everyone gasped —except for Armenians.
Armenia, a landlocked country of about 3 million people in the Caucasus Mountains, has a few claims to fame: gold medal chess players, fraught geopolitics, Churchill’s favorite brandy, and—OK, fine—the Kardashians, who are proud Armenian Americans. But tourism? Most U.S. travelers couldn’t spot Armenia on a map (it’s sandwiched between Georgia and Iran), let alone fathom a trip there.
It’s time to reconsider, if you’ve considered it at all. Beyond Armenia’s popular tourist attractions — it has some of the world’s oldest churches — there are new reasons to bump the nation a few spots up your bucket list. Last year’s Velvet Revolution, which unseated a Russia-backed oligarch, has given the country a palpable, contagious optimism. New hotels are sprouting up in the capital city of Yerevan, where the restaurant scene is shedding its meat-and-potatoes standards in favor of bolder, spicier flavors. And this year, the Transcaucasian Trail will launch its first group hikes in Dilijan National Park. In other words, Armenia feels electric — so get in on the buzz.
When archaeologists unearth-ed the world’s oldest winery, estimated to be 6,100 years old, in southern Armenia three years ago, everyone gasped — except for Armenians.
Wine has long been the lifeblood of local culture, consecrated at Armenian Apostolic masses, sipped at elaborate traditional feasts, and chugged on raucous nights out. Sample some of the country’s best bottles at In Vino, a cobwebbed cubbyhole where wine geeks splurge on award-winning labels like Karas and Zorah, or at Wine Republic, where the French bistro menu is almost as varied as its 650-bottle list.
Drink of Choice
“Cuban cigars, Armenian brandy, and no sport!” That trifecta, according to Winston Churchill, was the key to a long life. Test his hypothesis at Yerevan Brandy Co. (daily tours available), where the brandy he adored is still made in much the same way. Aged in Caucasian oak barrels and double-distilled for purity, it gives French cognac a run for its money.
Exactly how an ancient Roman temple wound up in the Armenian countryside — or how it remained intact despite countless invasions — is a subject of much debate. But what is clear is that the massive colonnaded structure is one of Eurasia’s most precious examples of pre-Christian architecture. Built in the first century, Garni was likely a shrine to the pagan sun god Mihr, though some scholars speculate it’s the tomb of a Romanised Armenian king or the defunct residence of some long-forgotten ruler.
Oldest Cathedral On Earth
Echmiadzin Cathedral, founded in the early fourth century, is to Armenian Christians what the Great Mosque is to Muslims and the Western Wall is to Jews: a place of incomparable spiritual importance. But you don’t have to be a believer to be bowled over by its splendor. Impossibly intricate reliefs depict Biblical and nature scenes; gilded frescoes glint in the sunlight. Visit before noon, and you might be treated to an impromptu choral performance by somber church singers carrying candles.
Exactly how an ancient Roman temple wound up in the Armenian countryside—or how it remained intact despite countless invasions—is a subject of much debate. But what is clear is that the massive colonnaded structure is one of Eurasia’s most precious examples of pre-Christian architecture.
Built in the first century, Garni was likely a shrine to the pagan sun god Mihr, though some scholars speculate it’s the tomb of a Romanized Armenian king or the defunct residence of some long-forgotten ruler.
Space-age towers, neoclassical government buildings, dilapidated Khrushchyovka — while Armenia may have split from the Soviet Union almost three decades ago, judging from its architecture, you’d never know it. In Yerevan, one name comes up again and again: Alexander Tamanian, the Armenian architect who designed the city’s curiously circular street plan and drew the blueprints for the Cascade, opera house, and Republic Square.
On This Rock
You could spend weeks monastery-hopping across Armenia and still not hit them all, but one is a must: Geghard, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The labyrinthine monastery complex includes a wealth of hypnotic khachkars (cross-stones), a 13th century church, and even older chapels and vestries hewn straight into the side of a cliff, their walls blackened from centuries of candlelight.
Land of Lakes
Covering 16 percent of Armenia’s surface area, Lake Sevan makes the landlocked country a veritable beach destination.
The lapping waves keep Armenians (and a host of other neighboring nationals) cool during parched summers. Even if it’s too chilly to take a dip, you can snap postcard-worthy pics of the Hayravank and Sevanavank monasteries, dramatically set against the sparkling blue water.